Hope For Endangered Species And Their World, by Jane Goodall

Hope for Endangered Species

  • Genre
    • Nonfiction, Conservation, Zoology, Ecology
  • Summary
    • Jane Goodall, together with her fellow activists Thane Maynard and Gail Hudson, investigate success stories of animal species brought back from the brink of extinction.
  • Information
    • These stories are more than just warm, fuzzy and inspiring. They reveal crucial information about the real challenges of environmentalism. It’s easy to rail against human greed and destruction. It’s harder to get into the nitty gritty of what animals can adapt to and what they can’t, about the particular behaviors and needs of diverse species, about the specific links in every ecosystem, and the things we are still learning about rare, endangered species. Every chapter will teach you something you didn’t even realize was an issue, and all the creative ways people have found to overcome it. It’s brilliant and fascinating.
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • If you’ve read any of Jane Goodall’s writing, you already know exactly what to expect, and don’t need any further convincing. For the rest of you; this book is full of love. You can feel Jane Goodall’s gentle affection for animals in every sentence. It’s also got a clear, almost homespun clarity to it. You feel like you’re a kid sitting down to tea with your coolest aunt; the one with all the stories, who seems to know everything, and who talks to you in a way that makes you feel more grown-up than you are.
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • I think any activist, whether environmental or not, will find this book not only inspiring, but empowering. We struggle with overwhelming obstacles, whatever we fight for, and there are too few narratives that talk honestly about them. We gloss over the mistakes, the failed experiments and the setbacks. As a result, actual activism becomes far too unappealing, and it becomes easier to talk about doing than actually move. This book will show you how, even when there seems to be no hope, the battle can still be won. It shows you how small actions really can add up to bigger changes. It reminds you that it’s worthwhile to fight.
    • Each chapter is a complete story, which can be read independently of the others. I love that in non-fiction. You can go, “okay, wallabies are adorable and all, but I’m dying to know how the california condors made it! Like, they were down to single digits so how the hell do you come back from that???” And voila, you can skip straight to that part. Maybe that’s just my personal impatience talking, but there you go.
    • Beautiful animal pictures! There are both black and white photos, and glossy color plates, and every one is just stunning.
    • If you go for the audiobook, Jane Goodall reads it herself, and she has the most delightfully soothing voice.
  • Content Warnings
    • N/A
  • Quotes
    • “It was close to midnight when Brent called out: ‘There’s one!’ And I saw the eyes of a small animal shining brilliant emerald green as they reflected his spotlight. As we drove closer, I made out the ferret’s head as she looked at us, listening to the engines. She did not vanish as we cautiously drove closer. And when she did duck down, she could not resist popping up for another look before disappearing. When we eventually went over to peek down the burrow, there was her little face, peeking back at us, not at all afraid.” 

 

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist: The Other Woman

This is the conclusion of the mental health series, and I’ll give both my final ratings for this episode, and my ratings for the topic as a whole.

A bit of background for this episode; at one point in the series, Tom Reilly becomes mayor of Odyssey. He has been a city councilman for a while, but wasn’t interested in seeking a higher office until some circumstances forced his hand. Bart Rathbone, recurring villain, ran against him and lost, which had something to do with the fact that he is a greedy, selfish pathological liar and, frankly, hilariously incompetent. And if I was writing this a couple years ago I’d make some comment about how it was implausible that Bart would even be taken seriously as a candidate, but obviously I can’t do that now… is it 2020 yet?

Anyway, this episode opens with Tom announcing that he is still considering whether or not to run for re-election, and he indicates that he is leaning towards not. This excites Bart, who thinks he might have a chance to be elected this time around, so long as he’s fighting some lesser opponent. He urges his family to think of ways to discourage Tom from running, which leads his wife and son to follow Tom around town.

They catch him going to Hillingdale Haven, which seems to be a kind of hotel or club, and get pictures of him wandering the grounds, romantically entwined with a woman. This raises the question of Tom’s wife. She hasn’t been around for years, but as far as anybody knows she isn’t dead and they aren’t divorced. Bart’s son insists he has seen her once, and this woman isn’t her; she is blonde, and Tom’s wife definitely wasn’t.

They take pictures and bring them to a tabloid. The editor is thrilled, especially when they tell him where the photos were taken. Hillingdale isn’t any kind of resort. It’s a mental hospital.

Naturally, when the story breaks, it comes out that Tom isn’t cheating at all. Tom’s wife, Agnes, has a passion for hair dye, and every couple of months she’s trying out a new color. Her mental illness is, of course, the reason why nobody has seen her, especially while Tom was on the campaign trail. It’s also the reason why Tom has finally decided not to run for a second term. He’s tired of the scrutiny of mayoral life, and the job has kept him away from her far too often. He’s done with it. This announcement does not give the Rathbones the joy they expected. Instead, Bart, for once, feels ashamed of himself.

This episode, as you surely notice, is the only one that explicitly mentions mental health. In all others, I rely on either cases where someone is showing the symptoms of a mental illness, which is not named as such, or someone is going through a short-term reaction to a stressful event; the kind of reaction that is not a mental illness in context, but in which handling the situation is still a mental health question, if that distinction makes sense.

You also probably notice that this episode has almost nothing to do with Agnes. She’s a plot device used to create a false scandal; any innocuous explanation could substitute. I’ve almost left her out of my summary entirely.

But this episode does discuss mental health, albeit in something of a footnote. After Tom’s announcement, Whit and Eugene talk a bit more about Agnes’ condition. What puzzles Eugene is that he has never heard about her. He understands why her mental illness wasn’t public knowledge, but he has never heard it brought up in church (Eugene is a Christian at this point in the series). Whit explains that, when praying didn’t improve her condition, people stopped being comfortable with the discussion.

“At first they prayed for her healing, but she just didn’t get any better. It was awkward. Eventually people stopped asking Tom about it, and Tom stopped mentioning it.”

This is something I’ve wanted to see from AIO for a while: an admission that prayer and faith don’t always work. Every Christian knows about somebody who wasn’t healed by prayer, who wasn’t spared suffering because of their faith. It’s typically not talked about, because it raises questions they are uncomfortable with. And Whit, surprisingly, admits it. When Eugene asks for his thoughts on the answer to those questions, this is the best Whit can do.

“I think there are a lot of Christians who have a hard time dealing with things like unanswered prayer. We want God to heal in our timetable, and problems like mental illness make it even messier for us. We like happy endings. We want these people to get better and get on with their lives, like good Christians… Christians who can’t cope are like poor advertising. They’re embarrassing to us. It raises questions we find hard to answer, like where is God when we become mentally ill?”

Here’s where we get a bit iffier. He’s admitting that stigma exists, but he isn’t really discouraging it. He isn’t exactly encouraging it either; clearly he’s sympathetic towards Agnes and doesn’t seem to think the problem is with her faith, yet he falls into stigmatizing language anyway. He doesn’t say “Christians who have a medical condition,” but rather “Christians who can’t cope.” The phrase “get better and get on with their lives, like good Christians,” casts a complimentary image of people who don’t get better because they’re not good Christians. Even if he’s not supporting this image in all cases, he is indirectly indicating that those who suffer mental health problems are at least sometimes at fault.

When Eugene asks, Whit tries to answer his own question.

“It leaves us where we’ve always been, stuck with the frailty of our humanness. Dependent on the power of God’s will, and obliged to keep praying hard for the Mrs. Reillys of the world, and the Tom Reillys who help them.”

I want to like that answer, because it is doing something rare in AIO canon. Whit isn’t conjuring up some theologically contorted answer. He’s just saying, a bit indirectly, that he doesn’t know. I feel like I’ve been waiting for that since starting this project. And, honestly, I really like to reward people who have the guts to admit that. It’s not easy for anybody, but I think that so many situations would improve if we were all just a little more honest about the limits of our own understanding.

That said, there’s a couple things that stop me from giving full credit. The first is that he doesn’t say “help people like Tom and Agnes” or “work to destigmatize their situation so they don’t have to hide like this.” He just says “pray.” To be fair, I know many religious people who would take it as a given that if you pray and then fail to also do what you can, you might as well not have prayed. But I also have known many religious people who, having prayed, feel they’ve done enough and can move on with clear conscience. And most importantly, it makes the real takeaway of this episode feel less like, “accept that some people have mental health problems that don’t go away on our time table” and more like “accept that, and for goodness sake don’t let it cause you to question the power of prayer!”

I’d have liked it if they had tried to deal with this problem, rather than just point it out and then pat themselves on the back for noticing it.

Final ratings (for the episode)

Best Part: While her appearance is incredibly brief, the interaction between Agnes and Tom is sweet. They tease each other in an obviously still in love way. Also, I do love that what you see of Agnes isn’t her being stereotypically “crazy,” but rather you get a conversation fairly typical of any old married couple, with a few key lines that reveal her conditions. 

Worst Part: I suppose I’m most frustrated by the description of Agnes’ actual diagnosis. They describe it as a “deep depression” but then she mostly shows symptoms of mild dementia? I mean, it’s possible to have both, but this feels less like an attempt to add nuance and complexity to her symptoms and more like they were lazy. 

Story Rating: There’s a lot wrong here. First of all, the tone is horribly inconsistent. All the Rathbones are decidedly buffoonish villains, so naturally an episode with all three will be joke heavy. The scenes of them bickering as they try to follow Tom are pretty funny, but when Agnes Reilly’s mental health problems are revealed, the tone shifts awkwardly.

Then there’s the lack of clear stakes. The main thing at stake seems to be whether or not Tom will run for mayor. It’s hard to root for this when he is so clearly ambivalent to start out. We also know he has main character plot armor. If the writers really wanted him to run again, he would shrug this controversy right off. I suppose we are expected to feel that, since Tom is second only to Whit in his perfectness, we should just want him to be the Eternal Mayor For Life and be devastated at any course that doesn’t keep him in charge forever. 

…. yeah, for failing to put together the events in any compelling or aesthetically satisfying way, this gets a D.

Moral Rating: As I said, I’m not sure if the message is supposed to be “love and support the mentally ill and their caregivers,” which is good, but poorly executed, and I’d give a C+, or “don’t let the mentally ill good Christians out there shake your faith,” which I’d give a D for screwed up priorities, or just “don’t make assumptions and try to smear people with gossip,” which is solid, well illustrated even though the story itself is bleh, and I’d normally give it an A. I’ll split the difference: B-

Ratings for the Mental Health Topic

Best Episode: Letting Go

Worst Episode: Nothing to Fear

Good Things They Said: Support people who are struggling, accept that bad things will happen but face them anyway. Sometimes people of faith still have mental health problems. These all should be common sense, but unfortunately even misconceptions this basic are endemic to both religious and secular communities.

Bad Things They Said: Religion fixes all the things, most mental health problems are spiritual, and people who lack religion can’t cope with death or traumatic life events. All of these are not only inaccurate, but for Christians with mental health issues they can actively make their problems worse.

Things They Failed to Address: Actual, accurate descriptions of mental illnesses and disabilities, the role of conventional medicine. I don’t think this show has to be a PSA on mental health, but I do think that, if you’re going to broach the issue, you should research it as best you can. Furthermore, while conventional medicine is still in trial and error mode when it comes to mental health, it has also healed or at least alleviated the condition of many, many people. I’m not even going to say that this show, created for and by Christians, shouldn’t have promoted religion as a potential source of healing. I’m saying that an episode that, for example, promotes therapists and psychiatrists as a tool God provides for us would have been great.

Overall Rating: The bad messages are emphasized far more than the good ones, and sometimes directly oppose them. The things they fail to address are key to the topic as a whole. Because of this, I think the bad really outweighs the good here. D- 

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, by N. K. Jemisin

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

  • Genre
    • Epic Fantasy, High Fantasy
  • Plot Summary
    • Yeine Darr, the mixed race daughter of a banished princess, is summoned to the imperial capital to be named as one of three competing heirs. This summons is not what it seems, and she is pulled into a web of intrigue that involves not only the royal family, but the gods themselves.
  • Character Empathy
    • It’s similar to most SF. The protagonist is likable but mostly serves as someone you can disappear into, rather than a person you come to know, while the secondary characters are more individual and colorful. That’s not my favorite style, but it does make for effective storytelling. 
    • It is heavy with profoundly evil villains, but it earns them in a way many books do not. Most stories with scary, despicable antagonists just let the reader accept that evil is simply a part of that character’s nature. Explaining where evil comes from is usually treated as an excuse for it. This book is unflinching. You understand exactly what created the evil, and comprehending it makes it no less horrifying.
    • The heroes tend to be complicated rather than straightforwardly virtuous. They are wedged into situations where, no matter now much they want to be good, the most they can do is try hard to be less awful.
    • My favorite characters were the gods. I have a weak spot for characters who are easy to care for and relate to, yet are clearly not human.
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • Intense. The revelations pile up fast, and at the same time the book keeps you asking certain key, agonizing questions until the very end. I listened to this on CD in my car, and I could not wait to get on the road and hear the next disc. And listen, people, I hate driving. I really, really hate it. 
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • Makes a brutal and effective attack on imperialism that you rarely see in epic fantasy. I love the genre, but it does come from a very imperialistic heritage. Modern works tend to either ignore or find a way to excuse their particular characters for engaging in it. It’s cool to see an author actively embrace it as a source of conflict. I wish more writers would do this. 
    • The magical history of the gods is like nothing I’ve seen anywhere else. It raises interesting questions about not only power and justice, but love, family, healing and destruction.
    • The main setting, in the city of Sky, is beautiful, weird, creepy, and a perfect spot for this story. I’m more of a character reader than a setting reader, but this place still grabbed my attention.
  • Content Warnings
    • Most of the attacks the gods and royals make on each other are emotionally manipulative, rather than physical, but there are some gory fights and also a scene of creepy body horror magic.
    • Sexual abuse and threats of it. Usually the actual abuse is offscreen, and the threats are right there. I don’t know whether that made it harder or easier to get through; your mileage may vary.
  • Quotes
    • “In a child’s eyes, a mother is a goddess. She can be glorious or terrible, benevolent or filled with wrath, but she commands love either way. I am convinced that this is the greatest power in the universe.”
    • “We can never be gods, after all–but we can become something less than human with frightening ease.”
    • “But love like that doesn’t just disappear, does it? No matter how powerful the hate, there is always a little love left, underneath.
      Yes. Horrible, isn’t it?”

Choosing Your Influences

A few years ago, when I was a baby SJW, some people recommended Laci Green’s videos to me. I liked what she was saying, but something made me uneasy. I was still finding myself and recovering from my fundamentalist homeschooled background, and all the toxic messages that came with that. I was learning that one of the most damaging things from my childhood was how I felt that disagreeing made me stupid and evil. There was no space to be uninformed, still processing the evidence, or still comparing points of view. My choices were to either accept instantly or be utterly wrong, not just intellectually, but also morally.

Some segments of the social justice community were, frankly, triggering, because they shared that mentality. I don’t use that word to mean “unsettled” or “offended,” which is how many people (mis) use it. I mean it in it’s proper, medical sense; bringing back thoughts, habits or behaviors that interfere with the healing process, or cause symptoms of a mental illness. Laci Green was highly triggering, because even though she was saying things that I agreed with wholeheartedly, she was saying them in ways that made me feel that to continue examining these ideas would made me stupid and evil. At this time, those ideas were new to me, and I was afraid of simply accepting the first thing that came along, no matter how much sense it made. So, despite liking what she was saying, I decided not to follow her.

Even though I had no idea what would happen, I must admit to feeling a big smug, given recent events.*

I bring that up because it was a decision that lead to a habit of carefully choosing who I let influence me. That habit, more than any other, has protected me from activist burnout. I do have finite mental space, and some voices are exhausting, demoralizing, and, yes, triggering. It took some trial and error to work out who actually helped me and who didn’t, but in the end I ended up with a few simple guidelines that have served me fairly well.

First Guideline: Look for People Who Blend Positives and Negatives

Constant angry ranting can be tempting, because anger is contagious, and what do you want from your social network more than a highly shared post?. But it’s a toxic mental diet. It ultimately drains your energy, makes you cynical, and encourages you to spend most of your time putting other people down without adding anything constructive.

That said, I’m not sure nonstop positivity is great either. There are too many problems out there. There is pain and damage and systemic oppression that needs to be addressed. There’s a fine line between positivity and complacency, and an even finer line between complacency and complicity.

When an activist can post something about a systemic problem, and something else praising a solution or celebrating a moment of progress, that tells me they are able to see the world for what it is; a broken place that is still worth fighting for. A world full of people beautiful and precious despite their flaws. It reminds me that social justice is an ongoing, self-experimenting process. It makes me less afraid to take part in that experimentation, even knowing I might fail or prove ignorant. It gives me a hope that is grounded, not ephemeral, and it cultivates patience for a long fight still ahead.

Second Guideline: Look for People Who Evolve

I can’t say it enough; nobody’s perfect, and the people with the most problems are usually the ones most convinced they have nothing to learn.

In the social justice community, we have a bad habit of treating every problematic misstatement as a reason to ditch someone completely, but there are two problems with that. First, sometimes people make honest mistakes, which, given time, they will correct. Second, sometimes it’s not the other person who is wrong, but us. I’ve had times when I thought somebody was deeply misinformed or misguided, but in fact I was missing something. If I had dismissed them offhand, instead of looking closer, I would have missed out on a chance to grow.

This isn’t an easy road for anyone. Nobody has all the experiences needed to understand every point of view. Some of the problems ahead still don’t have clear solutions. If you’re following somebody who hasn’t seemed to change at all, that person is either stagnant or dishonest.

What I look for now is evidence that a person is constantly self-evaluating and re-evaluating. I can never expect to find a person without flaws, but I can expect to follow people who are constantly going through a process of reducing them, and I can hope that practice rubs off on me as well.

Third Guideline: Look for Empathy, Not Consensus

While this criticism has often been misapplied, I think there truly is an echo chamber problem in social justice. Unfortunately, many people seem to think the solution to that is to listen to hatemongers on the far right. I’ve noticed that those who embrace that solution are actually often those who have been least interested in paying attention to inter-community debate. There is so much disagreement among leftists and moderates. Even within small communities, from environmentalism to feminism to LGBTQIA, there are people who see problem A but have no experience of problem B arguing with those are ignorant of A but deeply entrenched in B, and people standing aside, bogged down in problem C, asking “excuse me, excuse me, hello? Anybody hear me?” Then, even when we can all agree that a problem exists, there’s the problem of agreeing on solutions. Clear, straightforward paths are the exceptions, not the rule. Most of the time multiple possible solutions exist, all of which have positives and negatives, all of which have advocates and critics.

It’s dangerously easy, in social justice, to get hooked on one problem you are familiar with, and one solution that appeals to you. But we are all a tiny fraction of the big oppression problem, and while one person’s philosophy might be infuriating because it’s wildly ignorant of your reality, yours might be as infuriating to them for exactly the same reason.

When I’m trying to decide who to engage and argue with, and who to ignore, I find it’s helpful to ignore what they are saying, and instead look at why they are saying it. Sometimes there’s evidence that they are just looking to put others down. There’s no point arguing with someone like that. They don’t really want to listen to you, and it doesn’t matter whether they’re on the far right or only a faint tint bluer or pinker than me. As far as they are concerned, your job is to either puff them up by becoming one of their converts, or puff them up by letting them stomp all over you to the applause of their cheering fans.

Others, however, agree with my basic values, and share my goal of making the world a better place. They just have an idea I disagree with. Those people are worth arguing with, whether the gaps are vast or small, because there is some hope of mutually educating each other.

The only type of philosophy that’s not worth listening to is one that devalues the fundamental worth of a human being. So long as there’s agreement on human value, everything else is just a difference of how we fight for human rights. Don’t engage with people who, with their words or their actions, make a habit of putting other people down. Do engage with people who have different plans to create a world that’s fairer and freer for everybody.

Zeroth Guideline: Trust Yourself

This is the zeroth guide, not the fourth, because it transcends all the others. I didn’t predict what Laci Green would end up doing. In fact, it was only retroactively that I could put any words to it. Even after my vague negative vibe turned into a nameable thing, I never would have anticipated what actually happened. I was just following my gut about what seemed emotionally healthy to me.

Do that thing.

Do challenge yourself. Sometimes you’ll hear something that makes you feel uncomfortable, but that also makes you better for hearing it. It’s worth pushing through that discomfort. But when you feel like you’re becoming a person you don’t like, or your mental health is being negatively affected, you don’t need to spell out exactly why you aren’t comfortable. Nor do you need a reason why nobody on earth should listen to that person ever; you aren’t everyone, you’re just you. Listen to the voices that make you a stronger, happier, better informed and ultimately more loving kind of person. Don’t waste time on all the rest.

*For those who haven’t followed it or haven’t heard of Laci Green; She’s a prominent Youtuber who vlogs about feminism, consent culture and sex ed. In the past she’s received a lot of praise, but also been criticized as an example of White Feminism; the problem of mainstream feminism being synonymous with the issues of white women, or erasing issues and perspectives of Black women. Over the past several weeks, she has announced that she started dating an anti-social justice, “alt right” white supremacist Youtuber. She also has been using her various platforms to legitimize voices of white supremacists, anti-feminists and anti-trans activists. Her defense has been that SJWs are too sensitive and PC and won’t engage with the other side, which, given previous criticisms and my original reason for ditching her, is highly ironic.

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, by Grace Lin

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon

  • Genre
    • Fantasy, Coming-of-Age
  • Plot Summary
    • A poor girl named Minli goes on a quest to ask the Old Man of the Moon how to improve her family’s fortune.
  • Character Empathy
    • Both Minli and the companions she meets along the way are fun and likable. They were all characterized in the classic fairy tale way; quickly characterized and simple, prone to either remain unchanged or to change in very archetypal ways. Despite that, they all felt very vivid and lifelike. That’s not easy to pull that off, and it was absolutely wonderful.
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • A mixture of charmingly lighthearted and enchantingly beautiful. This is very much a  fairy tale adventure, but Grace Lin spices it with the effortlessly lovely descriptions of places, people, foods and scenes. Reading this book is like walking through a garden; stimulating but peaceful, and good for the soul.
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • Unlike many hero’s journey stories, where the people at home are abandoned offstage, this book periodically returns to Minli’s parents. They struggle in the aftermath of her disappearance, but ultimately both grow as people. It’s not something I’ve ever seen before, and I loved it. 
    • Tons of stories within stories that ultimately weave together in the most delightfully satisfying way. 
    • Dragons and grumpy old wise men and talking goldfish!
  • Content Warnings
    • None
  • Quotes
    • “If you make happy those that are near, those that are far will come.”

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist: Where is Thy Sting?

This episode begins very shortly after the last one left off. Connie and her mother are going through Mildred’s things, and they discover a lovely music box that plays “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name,” is inscribed with “From Bill, First Timothy 6:17-19, in my prayers that you may find true treasure.”

Then they go pick up Connie’s father, Bill, at the airport. He is surly, but rather than rest up at a hotel, he wants to go straight to the funeral home and discuss arrangements. They meet with the funeral director, a local pastor and Mildred’s pastor from New York. As they talk, Connie says that she wants the funeral to be more than just a standard dour experience. She has been thinking about how hopeful Mildred was at the end, and how for Christians death isn’t an end, but a transition to a new and better life. She wants the funeral to focus more on celebrating that. Bill is furious.

“If you’re thinking that my mother’s funeral service is going to be some kind of a party, well then you’re on the wrong track.”

The others try to calm him down and suggest a balanced service, in which they talk about the sadness of her loss but also the hope she felt for a life afterwards, but Bill isn’t interested. He continues to mock Connie’s idea, accuses everyone else of ganging up on him, then storms out.

Now, usually I give a full summary and save my thoughts for the end. This is going to be one of the exceptions. There’s just too much to talk about here, and too much that changes from scene to scene, so I have to give my analysis as I go. Here, Bill is clearly being an asshole, and I don’t think his grief is an adequate excuse. Everyone else in that room is grieving too, with the possible exception of the funeral director. What’s more, all of them will need different things to help them through. That’s a pretty normal situation after someone dies. Connie shared the thing that is helping her through this, and how she would like to incorporate that into the funeral. But she didn’t demand it; she merely brought it up, which is what this meeting is for. Bill clearly needs something else, and doesn’t seem to know exactly what that is, which is rough. But his first response is to attack Connie, who is hurting just as much as he is. That’s only okay if you’re about five.

Afterwards, Connie talks the situation out with Jack and Eugene. It’s Eugene, of all people, who takes it upon himself to explain how Bill is probably feeling.

“Alas, take it from one who has explored many philosophies of life and death. If he considers death a void, then it may make him wonder if life itself is a void as well.”

This introduces us to the idea that, without God, there is no such thing as coping. They illustrate it with Bill, who is not only an atheist, but a nihilist. Contrary to popular belief among fundamentalists, most of the time those two don’t go together. I’m not going to say it’s never accurate, only that nihilism is not a sustainable ideology. We don’t do well with lacking meaning – it’s a human thing. To be a nihilist is to crave for a reason to be anything else. But that reason is not necessarily found in religion. I find it primarily in the people I love and the fight for social justice. I’ve known atheists who find it in a futurist’s utopian vision, an artist’s work, a family to care for, or a never-ending search for self-improvement. All of these things have value, here and now. It’s just a matter of discovering what speaks to you.

The idea of a nihilistic atheist being the norm is common. Fundamentalist Christians cling to it particularly hard, I think partly because they spend so much time putting down the worth of the world we have here. It is constantly compared to the value of the glorious, eternal afterlife. The present world is, at best, a pale facsimile, and at worst an active distraction. Switching mentalities from that to one where earthly love and human well-being is a perfectly valid reason to live and have hope is well, a bit awkward to pull off, even if you’re just switching your thinking temporarily to empathize with an unbeliever. I also think there’s a bit of confirm bias and survivor’s bias mixed in. Confirmation bias because fundamentalists want to see atheists this way, rather than consider that someone might be satisfied and happy without God, so they assume any happy atheist is lying. Survivor’s bias because the rare nihilistic atheists are the most likely to convert, and thus are the former atheists Christians are most familiar with.

This idea is impressed on the audience more when Connie’s mother talks to Bill, back at the house. She tries to reiterate Connie’s point about the balance of life and death, and the reward for believers.

“Well, that’s great, but if you believe the way Bill Kendall believes, you live and you die and the people you leave behind spend years trying to get over losing you.”

She also shows him the music box, and asks if he knows what the inscription means… kind of a weird question, given his clearly expressed disinterest in the Bible. He doesn’t know, he’s annoyed by the whole thing, and he goes for a “walk,” and isn’t seen until the viewing is almost over.

When he turns up, at the very end of the viewing, he is staggeringly drunk. He cries, snarks, and waxes poetic… if you expand the definition of poetry to slobbering doggerel.

“I am grieving the loss of my mother the only way I know how. You do it by having happy funerals and I do it by trying to forget.”

I have mixed feelings about this scene. On the one hand, I love how, despite his relentlessly dickish behavior, you are made to feel for Bill. He’s no simple villain. He’s a human being who is expressing his pain destructively, but you are made to feel his grief along with him nonetheless. On the other hand, it’s clear that the writers of AIO struggle to understand how a non-believer truly thinks and acts. Even for a nihilistic atheist, Bill’s statement is a little too on the nose, too perfectly aligned with where the writers are determined to take us.

Bill manages to behave through the funeral, and afterwards he goes up with Connie and her mother to view Mildred one last time. He reflects that the service was actually quite beautiful, contrary to his expectations. He also reveals that he and his second wife are getting a divorce. He feels like a failure on every level; he can’t keep his marriages together, he missed his mother’s final days because he was off on a cruise, and he can’t help making a mess of the mourning process, swinging his grief around like a club that keeps everyone at bay. Connie comes in with her solution. He needs to become a Christian. She emphasizes that the Bible verse on the box was an exhortation to pray for unbelievers, especially those obsessed with money and fancy living, and how it proves that Mildred wanted nothing more than for Bill to accept Christ. Bill reiterates that he can’t believe, and can’t forgive himself either. Connie tries again, and Bill runs off. Connie’s mother reflects that they probably won’t see him again, and how she’s realized that she has a choice between handling life the way Connie does or handling it the way Bill does, and it’s about time she became an official Christian.

I’ve already explained how bad that dichotomy is, so I’ll go into the other big problem with this scene. Based on my experience, there are two ways to deal constructively with someone acting like Bill; someone full of pain who is simultaneously incapable of caring for themselves and lashing out at others. First, you can put up some boundaries to protect yourself from their attacks, and focus on your own healing. Second, you can sit down with them, listen to them, let them vent while taking nothing they say personally, and hope that somewhere along the line you both figure out what they need. Both are valid choices. The latter can be noble and admirable, but when you can’t juggle your pain and theirs at the same time, which is typical, there’s no shame in the former. Better to successfully heal one person than try and fail to heal two.

What’s not okay is to insist on this being the moment the other person radically change their worldview, so they can grieve correctly and heal in the way you’ve decided they need to. Healing is complicated, beliefs are complicated, human development is complicated, and all of the above are incredibly personal. In the scene at the funeral, what Connie does is like trying to collect an insect with a sledgehammer. She is saying he can’t heal and grow unless he somehow acquires a belief in God. He doesn’t believe, and can’t will himself to accept it, because nobody can even at the best of times. Bill is too raw for her statements to do anything but drive him deeper into a feeling of hopelessness.

I do agree that, in the long run, Bill needs deep, transformative change in order to become a functioning adult. But Connie, at the end of this episode, expects him to convert entirely to her method of coping, and offers no other way to help him. In a way, she’s doing the same thing he did to her earlier in the episode. She goes about it in a nicer way, but she is still more hurtful than helpful, for exactly the same reason; she’s refusing to acknowledge that his pain needs to be dealt with on its own terms.

Final ratings

Best Part: When Jack and Eugene go to the funeral and are just their adorable selves. Which is to say, Jack quietly listens and hugs and makes everything feel a little warmer, and Eugene goes on a ramble about “the historical development of necrology and it’s impact on Etruscan archaeology…” and then remembers he’s at a funeral and apologizes a few thousand times. It’s sweet. 

Worst Part: It’s a tough call between the various lines that oversimplify the nature of unbelief, and how unbelievers can cope with death. The worst, I think, is actually Eugene’s. Eugene is a kind of intellectual jack of all trades, and at this point in the series he’s actually something of an agnostic. Eugene is probably my second favorite character after Connie, but all too often, AIO uses him as a legitimizing mouthpiece. He confidently asserts something that we are to assume is well founded, because A. he’s smart and B. he’s not a full-fledged believer so it’s also coming from an objective perspective. But of course, those statements are written without any actual research. His statements don’t follow his character or a coherent philosophy, but are simply what the writers want him to say, dressed up with the aide of a thesaurus.

Story Rating: Honestly, if I just look at the bare bones plot, without the ideas explicitly discussed, it’s a pretty good idea for a story. The central conflict is between two different methods of grieving; that’s interesting. The execution isn’t all bad either. Many of the scenes are well constructed and much of the dialog sounds like how actual humans talk. There’s still a bit that’s stilted, but overall… B – 

Moral Rating: “If you don’t believe in my exact religion, clearly you can’t cope with death and you’re doomed to misery forever.” D – 

This One Summer, by Jillian and Mariko Tamaki

This One Summer

  • Genre
    • Graphic Novel, Young Adult, Coming of Age, Literary
  • Plot Summary
    • Rose Wallace spends the summer at her family’s favorite beach, while her parents struggle to get over a year of tragedy. 
  • Character Empathy
    • I love how Jillian Tamaki draws the expressions. They are incredibly subtle, especially for a graphic novel. If most comics characters are dancers in a Broadway musical, this is that underrated actor who communicates an entire mood with one twitching jaw muscle. The effect is immersive and effective.
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • The story is a strange mixture of sweet and suspenseful. Rose and her friend Windy are on the brink of growing up, but aren’t quite ready to yet. They want to enjoy one more summer of childhood, yet events around them keep threatening to shatter their innocence. As they peek in, then pull away, you’re simultaneously curious at what they’ve missed, and relieved that they have avoided it.
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • This is one of those rare books that perfectly captured what it was like to be a kid in the summer. I think it’s the things the girls did that seemed almost boring; lounging on the couch, picking up pebbles, digging massive holes, debating whether to go swimming or rent a movie or pick up ice cream without really caring. Part of the fun of summer is that nothing you do is too important, so you just do whatever you feel like. Often that something is nothing at all.
    • I loved the way the characters were drawn. I saw bodies that you see every day in real life, but almost never in art or fiction. I especially liked Windy’s squashy pear shape. I don’t know why; I think she reminded me of a friend I once had.
  • Content Warnings
    • Not really applicable; most of the adult content is hinted at, rather than depicted outright.
  • Quotes

God, man, just look at the pictures in this one.

Summer 4Summer 1Summer 3Summer 2

I Remember Beirut, by Zeina Abirached

I remember Beirut

  • Genre
    • Non-Fiction, Memoir, Graphic Novel
  • Summary
    • The memories of a childhood spent in the middle of no man’s land, during the Lebanese Civil War.
  • Character Empathy
    • Characters are sketched very simply, but in a way that doesn’t diminish them. In the same way that a silhouette can trigger a more visceral reaction than a photograph, the characters here don’t suffer even a little for the brief glimpses you get of them. 
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • Simultaneously light and thought provoking. I brought it to work and finished it in one lunch break, then was mulling over it for days later. It’s sad, but in many ways also beautiful and hopeful.
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • As you can no doubt see from the cover, the art is absolutely beautiful.
    • The contrast between the perspective of Zeina and her brother, for whom all of this is normal, and their parents, who remember the old days and are trying to give their children a normal life despite everything. It’s understated and perfect.
    • There is a story about a terrible barber that I absolutely loved. I can’t explain why, but something about it was immediately familiar and made me laugh. You’ll just have to get the book and see what I mean. 
    • Almost every sentence in the book starts with “I remember,” but it never gets tiresome. It just pulls you straight through. I don’t know how she does that.
  • Content Warnings
    • Although the time is brutal, there is no graphic violence. It’s more about psychology. How does the human mind adapt to a world where violence is your next door neighbor? It’s about damage, but also resilience, and finding joy and beauty in the little things.
  • Quotes
    • “I remember that during the war, the school bus skipped our neighborhood. The neighborhood’s alleys were close to the demarcation line and had a dangerous reputation. The bus would stop at Ward’s ice cream parlor at 6:30 every morning and 3:30 every afternoon. By virtue of being on the edge of the zone where the bus didn’t dare go, Ward’s had been turned into a bus stop.”
    • “I remember back when you could still smoke in planes. I remember that during the war, we were short on water, bread, electricity, and gas… but never cigarettes. I remember that every living room had a platter with packs of cigarettes on it. The hostess would offer them to her guests, as if she were passing around chocolates.”
    • “I remember my brother collected bits of shrapnel. I remember that after my brother’s outings with Chucri, he would spread his loot out all over the coffee table. Then he would put the shrapnel away in a basket my mother had given him. I remember that I had taken to leaving my backpack by my bed at night. In my backpack, I had everything I wanted to take with me, if we had to run.”
    • “I remember old Kit Kat wrappers. I remember the three steps before eating: ripping through the glossy red paper, folding back the white tissue paper, and crinkling up the foil.”
    • “I don’t remember the last day of the war. But I remember the first time you could take a real shower.”

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist: A Touch of Healing

This episode takes place during a period where Whit was off in the Middle East, being a missionary adventurer archaeologist (no, I’m not making that up), and Whit’s End was run by his son Jason and his old friend Jack. This was actually a pretty good time. See, they couldn’t bring in a new character who would usurp Whit’s status as most perfectest human being, and instead they replaced him with two guys with good hearts and human flaws. Jason is proactive and inventive, eager to adapt new technology and trends to engage the kids at Whit’s End but often too hasty. Jack is more cautious and old fashioned. He needs Jason’s energy to keep up with the times, but he can also see where Jason is rushing in without considering all the potential drawbacks. As a result, formulaic answers delivered by a Mary Sue were replaced with actual debate and compromise, and room for the audience to think longer about an issue before deciding who they agreed with. It not only made the morals less trite, but also tended to force the episode quality up.

In this episode, Jason has developed a new program for the Imagination Station. I don’t think I’ve mentioned it before, which is astounding because it is a major part of the AIO canon; in brief, it puts kids into a world where they act out a story, programmed in by Whit or Jason, but brought to life “by the power of imagination.” It does actually seem to penetrate the mind directly, rather than just being a glorified virtual reality machine, which has some freaky ass implications. But I’ll have more opportunities to get into this later.

For now, Jason has realized that, since disabled kids can imagine they don’t have disabilities, he can program the Imagination Station to put them through an adventure, completely able bodied. Jack felt like there could be problems with this, but couldn’t offer anything beyond a vague bad feeling, and Jason more or less took that as a challenge. He went straight from idea to implementation to trying the program out on some Whit’s End regulars.

His first test case, Jenny, does not go as planned. Jenny was born blind. She can’t accurately imagine being sighted, and as she talks about it upon leaving the Imagination Station, it seems that she also doesn’t really see her blindness as a fault. It’s just a part of her, and she has a good life just the way she is. The second one, with Zachary, who became quadriplegic in a car accident, goes much better. He walks and runs, and what’s more, sees this as absolute heaven. This is, by the way, the same Zachary from Letting Go, but earlier. He was still adjusting in that episode, but here he’s positively raw from the double shock of losing his father and becoming disabled. As soon as he is pulled out of the program he becomes enraged and demands to be sent back. His mother, Eileen, who was not informed about what Jason was about to do, is furious. Jack takes Eileen’s side, but Jason can only think about how happy Zachary was during the program, and can’t understand their problem.

Meanwhile, Connie and her Mom are welcoming Connie’s paternal grandmother, Mildred into their home for the foreseeable future. Connie’s father, as you may recall, is largely absentee, and Mildred is dealing with some ongoing heart problems. It says a lot about Connie’s family life that she’s the one unanimously chosen as the best suited to take care of her grandmother. Mildred is sweet, warm and utterly delightful. Unfortunately, during her visit, her health takes a sudden and dramatic turn for the worst. She is admitted to the hospital, and when Connie visits, the two of them spend much of their time in prayer.

The next day, Jason finds out from Eileen that Zachary was a wreck after the Imagination Station. He threw tantrums and, when he finally went to bed, she found him crying in his sleep. He has also been refusing to go to physical therapy. PT apparently has the potential to help him, but it’s a slow, frustrating process for a kid who is already emotionally scarred. Zachary says that there’s no point anymore, since he can just go into the Imagination Station and walk like he could before. Eileen asks how Zachary is supposed to cope with reality when Jason has created a perfect fantasy for him to escape to. Jason, still wanting to defend his invention, thinks that maybe later on, Zachary’s experiences in the Imagination Station can help him be more motivated to go through therapy. Jack takes him aside and tries to show him how he’s undermining an already stressed out parent. He argues that it’s always been a policy of Whit’s End to never contradict parents when it comes to their kids. Jason doesn’t like that policy. I don’t either, but in this instance I’ve gotta take Jack’s side. He’s started messing around with Zachary’s healing process without even consulting his mother, and that’s seriously unacceptable.

The episode then cuts to Connie and Mildred in the hospital. By now, Mildred knows her own body pretty well, and she wants no more hopeful double talk from the doctors. She lists the problems, the transplants she would need to survive and her slim odds of getting them, and sums up her condition as terminal. The doctors are stunned, but admit she’s right. Mildred thanks them for their honesty, and Connie asks her why they have been praying if there’s no realistic hope.

Instead of saying they are praying for a miracle, Mildred says that the prayers aren’t for herself, but for Connie; for her to have strength, whatever happens next. A short time later, she slips into a coma.

Over the next several days, while Connie works to prepare herself for the worst, Whit’s End is mobbed by disabled kids. Jason sees that Zachary’s not alone in his reaction. These kids have a brief experience of cheap release, but they leave either angry, because they have to return to a reality that now feels doubly unfair, or disappointed, because like Jenny they lack the experiences that let the program work on them. For those who can use the program, they mostly went through the same kind of pain Zachary did. The Imagination Station makes them go from a world where they’re struggling to learn how to be different, to a world where everything is as it was before, and then are thrust back into the real world, with no coping mechanisms, no tools to adapt to the transition. He hasn’t invented a way to heal them, but a way to torture them. He suspends the program indefinitely, until he can figure out a way to make it genuinely work for the kids, and apologizes publicly for the damage he has done.

Jack goes to visit Connie and Zachary. The conversations he has with both of them are about turning to God for emotional healing, even when the physical healing we hope for doesn’t come. These talks are both very different from the ones Whit gives. Jack spends a lot more time listening. There’s no railroading them into a predetermined point, so you get the sense that he doesn’t come in with an agenda. He hears what the other person says, gives his honest response, and then listens to see what they made of it. You know, like an actual conversation. With Connie, they meander through faith, prayer, sin, pain and the afterlife. She doesn’t emerge with any new answers, but she feels heard and loved in a way she didn’t get in the previous review. With Zachary, there’s a “let me tell you about Jesus” talk, but it comes up naturally as a result of Jack sharing his philosophy on spiritual healing, and Zachary asking to hear more.

In the end, Eileen and Zachary both are converted. Mildred dies, but Connie finds comfort in her belief that they will see each other again in heaven.

It is clearly indicated that the official message is that God is a more powerful force for healing, particularly mental and spiritual healing, than medicine and technology. I don’t agree with that basic premise, in partly because I think the latter exist and the former don’t, and also because my experiences with mental health have shown the opposite. Religion tended to exacerbate the problem, modern medicine had very good results for me. At the same time, this topic is handled with unusual nuance in this episode, and that does make it better.

In this episode, characters who disagree with the official moral aren’t strawmen. They have reasons and are given the space to fully explain them, so even though they end up proved wrong, you can still think about circumstances under which they might have been right. If Jason had collaborated with physical therapists and parents, for example, he might have set up a more helpful program; perhaps one where it’s a reward for therapy, to make the results more tangible.

The other thing that works well here is that there’s something organic about how faith is used. Connie, Mildred and Jenny have a long personal history of faith, so it makes sense that they turn to it. As for the conversion, while I don’t like what Jack says (he calls people who don’t believe in Jesus “spiritually handicapped”) I do think he has a right to share his faith with those who are interested, and Eileen and Zachary don’t feel forced into an out of character religious experience for the sake of the story.

Science has brought us a long way, but there are many things they can only alleviate, or haven’t been able to solve at all. The history of science is also full of therapies that were tried and did not work, or have the potential to be applied in both helpful and abusive ways (think electroshock therapy or lobotomies). While meds have made a significant difference in my life, and therapy can help many others, for other people religion is genuinely a source of emotional healing, and that’s great. When it comes to mental health, I’m happy for anyone who finds something that works for them.

Of course, this episode avoids a big potential problem by only portraying characters who are happy to turn to Christianity for healing. I’ve already talked some about ways that religion can be counterproductive for people with mental health problems. In the next review, Connie’s father shows up for Mildred’s funeral, and we get to look at how AIO treats characters who are hurting, and unwilling to convert.

Final ratings

Best Part: Jack comforting Connie. It was so genuinely warm, and after Fences I was really ready for her to get talked to like a human being and not a troublesome project.

Worst Part: They keep referencing an earlier episode where Jason tried to invent an arcade game that taught kids about the Bible, and Jack was so shocked because, you know, video games. That episode, to AIO’s credit, did not force Jason to realize video games were evil; only that they were loud and needed to be put in a soundproof room so they don’t disrupt the rest of the shop. The writers almost seem to feel guilty about making that compromise, because now Jack keeps saying that they can’t be healthy, what with all the lights and noise and punching buttons.

Literally, he complains about the kids punching buttons. The whole time, I’m thinking, “you hear that your childhood BFF invented something that literally induces hallucinations in minors and you’re fine with this, but video games are bad because buttons???”

It was a minor point that didn’t detract too much from the overall episode, but it was still annoying.

Story Rating: The dialog was natural, and the conflicts progressed very naturally. At no point did the story feel like it was relying on contrivances or manipulation to make it’s point. I got genuinely invested in all the characters and how things were going to turn out. A

Moral Rating: I think the basic point is problematic, but of all the takes on this idea, they took the best one. C +

Where the Line Bleeds, by Jesmyn Ward

Where the Line Bleeds

  • Genre
    • Fiction, Drama
  • Plot Summary
    • Upon graduating from a poor high school near New Orleans, twin brothers Joshua and Christophe look for work. Joshua finds it, but Christophe doesn’t, and turns to pot dealing. As Joshua becomes afraid of the path Christophe may be following, and Christophe becomes resentful of Joshua’s good luck, both struggle to keep the relationship that has let them survive this far. 
  • Character Empathy
    • The two protagonists are lovingly detailed. Some of the secondary characters are a little less fleshed out, but on the whole, I liked all of the main characters, even while I felt the need to scream “what are you doing? Don’t do that thing! That won’t end well for you!” 
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • The pace here is simultaneously luxurious and suspenseful. The book takes time to set up the characters, so you never have to ask “why do I care?” You care because you know Christophe and Joshua, and you know what they’re going to do, and if they don’t get through their shit okay then so help me… and once the book has you in that position, it just lets you stew, for page after page while the tension builds and the climax is inched towards. It’s agony, but god help me if I didn’t love it anyway. 
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • The scenes are full of the kind of sensory details that too many authors neglect. Jesmyn Ward knows that to really put readers into a scene, you shouldn’t just tell them what a thing looks like. We need to know smells, sounds, tastes and textures. I can still remember a scene where their grandmother was preparing shrimp, not because of anything special that happened, but just because I really felt like I was there.
    • Teenage characters who actually feel like dumb teenage boys, while still being incredibly sympathetic. Not many people can pull that off. 
    • No spoilers, but I was so worried that I wouldn’t like the ending and I very much did. 
  • Content Warnings
    • Some fistfights and obviously drug use (mainly alcohol and marijuana). Without going too deep into my personal politics, I think the substance abuse is handled very well; not demonized, not glorified, just portrayed as something people are vulnerable to when they have nothing else in their life to look forward to.
  • Quotes
    • “Christophe peeled the shrimp slowly and carefully: that was his way around her, and it was the exact opposite of his usual demeanor. She knew it for what it was: love.”